How do you pronounce that?: What I learned about synesthesia
The synee behind 'Lisha Danae
Hello. Dusty sky blue, yellow, rusty red, rusty red, white. H-E-L-L-O. Had my parents not shown me a documentary about synesthesia, I might not have discovered that I was a synesthete myself for quite some time. I was 14 when I realized I had this amazing gift, and I immediately rushed to my computer and did a bunch of Google searches. Since then, I've discovered more and more types that I have and have made lots of friends.
This Hub is a quick, easy-to-understand summary of the neat information I found online and in books I've read about it. For more information, I suggest your own Google and library searches. Dr. Cytowic's books are great, and Wendy Mass's A Mango Shaped Space is a fiction book with a fun take on synesthesia. If you have never heard of synesthesia or want to know the basics, you've come to the right place.
What I Learned 01: Definition and Pronunciation
Synesthesia. Alternate spelling - synaesthesia. Pronunciation: sĭn'ĭs-thē'zhə
Synesthesia is a neurological condition where a trigger in one sense (a sound, a touch, a taste) elicits another response in a different sense (a color, a touch, a sound). Common stimulus -> responses include:
- letters and numbers (graphemes) -> color, personality
- music -> color, shape, touch
- time (year, week) -> color, shape, personality
- touch (hug, tickle) or pain (headache, toothache) -> color, shape
There are too many combinations to list. The taste of broccoli could make someone feel a light touch on his shoulder. An emotion could cause someone to see a specific color, so anger could be purple and sadness could be pink. The combinations are endless. What's more, each synesthete's responses are unique. While two synesthetes may agree that E is yellow and 5 is green, there are no two synesthetes who have the entire alphabet colored the same. No two synesthetes will see the same colors in the same way with the same shapes for the same song. Every response is unique, and the conversations and friendly debates between synesthetes over their responses are lively, animated, and very fun all around. It is great to hear about everyone's different responses, try to imagine them, then smile to yourself because they are "wrong". 5 is green, everyone! Green! Not yellow - that's 3!
What I Learned 02: Terms to Know
Before we go any further, I want to share some terms I learned with you.
- Associator: a person who sees their synesthetic responses in their "mind's eye". Try picturing a rose. You can see the rose, but it isn't actually in front of you. That is 'associated'.
- Chain responses: where one trigger elicits a synesthetic response which then elicits another response. An example "When I smell fluoride, I get a headache, and that headache then is colored dark red." The chain is smell -> pain -> color.
- Non-synesthete: a person without synesthesia.
- Projector: a person who sees their synesthetic responses as projected in front of them. Imagine a projector placing a picture of your imagined rose up on a screen. That is 'projected'.
- Response: the synesthetic response to a stimulus. This could be a sound, a song, a touch, a color, a taste, and more.
- Stimulus: the trigger that sets off the synesthetic response: This could be a sound, a song, a touch, a letter, an emotion, and much more.
- SUI: stands for Syn Under Influence. I learned this term on the synesthesia message board The Nexus and MixSig.net. This is where a synesthetic response is affected by outside influences. An example would be "The colors of my numbers are the same as the colors of the numbers on the blocks I had as a child." Some of those colors may actually be synesthetic responses, but chances are you are just remembering the colors on the blocks and associating them with the numbers. This is different than "associated synesthesia".
- Syn types: the type(s) of synesthesia you have. Often, synesthetes will have more than one. The type is named after the trigger. If sound causes a response in you (color, taste, etc.), then that is sound-syn. If letters cause a response in you (color, personality, etc.), then that is sight-syn.
- Synesthesia: a neurological condition where a stimulus in one sense elicits a response in another.
- Synesthete: a person with synesthesia. Shortened forms: synee/synnie
Some things to know
- Having only a few responses in a syn type still counts. You can have only a handful of colored letters or only a dozen sound->shape responses. As long as it is involuntary and consistent, then it still counts as synesthesia.
- Synesthetic responses often do not relate to the trigger. If R is red, B is blue, Y is yellow, O is orange, G is green, P is pink and so on, chances are that the colors of the letters are only those colors because they begin the words of the colors. So, G is green because green starts with G; O is orange because orange starts with O. This would not be synesthesia. Synesthetic responses are usually unrelated. For me, R is a combination of navy blue and rusty red. B is navy blue. Y is silver. O is white. G is a dark purple. P is a purple-pink. Only some are related, and even then only slightly.
- Synesthetic responses are not elaborate. Hearing Bach may make you image a complex story that unfolds in relationship to the music. Great, but that happens for everyone. This is not a synesthetic response. If, however, Bach makes you see swirls of green, wavy lines that are purple, and spots of yellow that flash when the music crescendos, then great! That's synesthetic.
- But synesthetic responses are very specific and often very difficult to describe.It does not suffice to say it is "a green 5". No. It is a "forest green 5". Not "leprechaun green" or "shamrock green". "Forest green". The shape of the year isn't a circle. It's more of an oval. Well, the top is really elongated. And the shape is smooth and perfectly curved, yet it has points to it.
- Memory and smell, memory and taste, and smell and taste are strongly related.This means be extra careful when trying to distinguish between an synesthetic and non-synesthetic response. The smell of rain on certain days makes me think of my grandmother's house, but that's only because I'm remembering the smell as similar to the smell I am currently experiencing. It is not synesthetic. If I smelled spaghetti and pictured spaghetti, that's not synesthetic either. However, if rain smells like blue and green swirls and spaghetti smelled like yellow spikes, then that is synesthetic.
- What may seem as overwhelming extra senses are nothing unusual to synees. Non-synesthetes might wonder how we synees can "deal with all the extra stuff" we experience. What people who aren't familiar with synesthesia should realize is that these experiences aren't "extra stuff" to us. It is perfectly normal, just like hearing is normal to us. A deaf person could ask you how you "deal with all the added noise" and "wouldn't it be chaotic to always be hearing things?" But to you, hearing is normal. You only have to "deal with it" when it gets too loud. The same is true of synees. We only "deal with" our syn when we get a shocking or negative response that we weren't expecting or when we have "sensory overload". That is when too many responses are happening at one time, like a noisy room can overload your ears. Those responses are few and far between, though.
- Consistent: Synesthetic responses are the same over many trials. If the color of 3 changes from a yellow to a lighter yellow, that's not a big deal. However, if it changes from yellow to purple to blue, that's another thing and it is probably not synesthesia. That said, when figuring out responses, sometimes it can take you a while to pin down the most accurate description. Patience. Run more trials.
- Involuntary: Not forcing yourself to think up a response. If you have to sit and say "Is 3 yellow? Or purple? Blue? No, black?" then it's likely that it's not synesthesia. That said, if you are saying "Is 3 a sunflower yellow or a lemon yellow?", then it is most likely synesthesia.
Do I have it? How do I tell others about it?
Maybe. Not many doctors know about it, though, so the best way to tell is through self-diagnosis. Write down your responses and their triggers. Put it away in a drawer somewhere for a month or so. After a month, write down the same responses you got to the same triggers. Compare the lists, and see how they match up. It takes patience. The two basic tests your responses need to pass are (1) is it consistent? and (2) is it involuntary?
Another great way to test your could-be synesthetic responses is the long, time-consuming, but very wonderful test on Synesthete.org. It is called the Synesthesia Battery. You get to select your personal responses to the triggers the program provides based on what you said where your syn types. After three times through the list, you get to see the results. I believe less than 90% isn't considered to be a synesthetic response.
Even if you are a non-synesthete, bringing up synesthesia in a conversation can be awkward for both parties. Many synesthetes I know who mention it, myself included, get responses ranging from "Oh, really?" with a hesitant smile and a quick topic change to "You're crazy" to a short, polite, somewhat genuinely interested conversation. If you are looking for a way to bring up the conversation, I suggest providing scientific articles, documentaries, books - anything you can get your hands on. Begin with something like "So, I happened across this neat scientific thing the other day. It is where senses cross and (define as long as you like). Here are some print-offs (or links or lists of books, etc.)" Scientific documents like that are a great basis because then you can segway into "Guess what? I have it" without people assuming you are making it up.
- Dr. Richard Cytowic
Dr. Richard Cytowic's website. Topics and links include books, articles, media, and, of course, info on synesthesia!
- The Synesthesia Battery
"This battery of tests provides a standard battery of questions, tests and scoring. This test is available to the whole community of researchers and synesthetes for their use in making scientific progress. . . ." from Synesthete.org
A brand new forum for both synesthetes and non-synesthetes. Ask questions, discuss synesthesia (or what life is like without it), and more! Inspired by the MixedSignals forum, which is currently offline.
I want more information
Of course you do! A quick Google search will pull up tons of information. There will be book links, scholarly articles, quick blurbs on news websites, personal experiences, documentaries, online communities, and much more. Dr. Cytwoic a leading expert on synesthesia, and he's published numerous books on the subject. YouTube has plenty of documentaries and personal videos. Online communities such as The Nexus at MixSig.net bring together synees and non-synees alike. Take a look for yourself!
This is 'Lisha Danae saying, "Navy blue - silver - yellow!" ("B-Y-E!")